Why Do Republicans Control the Terms of Debate?

Politics Features Elizabeth Warren
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Why Do Republicans Control the Terms of Debate?

I remember a very brief, very annoying conversation I had with two family members earlier this year. They weren’t Republicans, necessarily, though I think (but can’t prove) they voted for Trump. They were just ordinary, middle-class white people of the type who don’t pay close attention to politics outside elections, and mostly treat it like a spectator sport that won’t have much of an effect on their lives either way. (In their cases, this is probably true.) One of them brought up Trump, more to troll me than anything else, and I ended up saying something snappy about the culpability of anyone who voted for him. Fine, they said, but Hillary was worse. The conversation moved on to the next election, and I brought up Bernie Sanders.

“He’s a hypocrite,” one of them said. “He just bought a $600,000 vacation home.”

Now, a few things here. First off, the vacation home is real, but it was bought because his wife sold a different family vacation home in Maine. Second, Bernie Sanders’ economic platform doesn’t say, “nobody should have money, or enjoy the fruits of their money.” That’s a blatant exaggeration.

Third, and most importantly—why was that the thing that stuck with them? Our discussion happened shortly after the child separations began in earnest at the border, and beyond that particularly dispiriting episode, I could point to any number of moral abominations being carried out by the Trump administration, along with all the routine lies and racism and belligerence. Each of those crimes was greater by far than Bernie Sanders buying a new home—which again, didn’t conflict with any of his stated values.

But for some reason, what Bernie did—the slightest hint of hypocrisy—disqualified him in their eyes. Meanwhile, Trump’s litany of horrors provoked only the most reluctant admissions that he might not be “perfect,” and their impulse was clearly to explain most of it away, and ultimately to forgive.

I asked them why, but I didn’t get a good answer. I’m not sure there is a good answer.

I thought of that conversation again today. Elizabeth Warren released the result of a DNA test in order to prove she had Native American ancestry. I wrote about the “controversy” of her ancestry last year, and the quickest explanation is that Warren claimed to be part Native American based on family lore, she checked it off on a Harvard questionnaire once, but she never used the heritage for any career or educational advantage. Despite the irrelevance of the whole thing, Republicans made a big deal of her unproven claim, and eventually Trump started calling her “Pocahontas.”

The test results seem to indicate that she does have Native American blood, and the reason she chose to undergo the test in the first place is clear—she wants to cut off a Republican attack on her character, and she wants to do so long before she runs for president. The official roll-out of the news will likely be done to great fanfare on Monday, in order to attract maximum publicity.

I understand why she had to do this, and in our current political climate, I understand why it’s a smart move. At least if Trump is going to keep calling her “Pocahontas,” she can call him a liar and have the evidence to back it up.

But I also hate that she did it. I hate that she (and so many others) buckled to a culture of bullying instigated by the Republican party. I hate that she was so vulnerable to this attack, when Trump seems impervious to so much worse. I hate that Republicans seem to control the terms of debate, and that any random accusation they throw out tends to have more sticking power than the very real concerns attending almost all of their politicians. I am glad that a creep like Al Franken gets kicked out of the Democratic power structure, but I hate that the same doesn’t happen to Republicans, and that in the best-case scenario it takes a nailbiter of an election to defeat a man like Roy Moore.

Why is this so? Perhaps when one party stops playing by the rules of decency, while simultaneously wielding the concept of decency like a mace against their political foes, the overwhelming hypocrisy is too much for voters and the media to handle, and on some level we passively accept the new norms. Perhaps there’s an impulse toward fascism or simple trolling on the part of too many Americans that gives Republicans the space to conduct this moralistic farce. Perhaps decades of cultural propaganda has allowed them to claim the patriotic high ground, and we’re not sophisticated enough to see the deception. Perhaps, as the Franken example illustrates, voters on the left care more about accountability while voters on the right only crave power.

Whatever the case, so many Americans—my family members included—march to the beat of their Republican masters. They ignore innocent children being ripped from their parents, but they will bristle at a vacation home, or a long-ago claim of Native American ancestry. It’s one of the starkest double standards in the history of electoral politics, and until that paradigm is shifted, the American left will always be on defensive footing.

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